Donna Hoke » Blog Archive » THE BEST PLAYWRITING ADVICE EVER

It started with my simple post on the Official Playwrights of Facebook: What is the single best piece of piece of playwriting advice you’ve ever received distilled to one line–talking about craft only? I have two, but the best one is probably: Questions are the weakest form of dialogue.

What followed was an amazing compendium of craft gems; everybody who posted learned something new — and all agreed it was too good not to share. I had to wait for the thread to calm down, but here are the results in a somewhat more coherent, though not original, order:

GETTING STARTED

Find an unusual setting for your play.__Chip Bolcik

Don’t set your play on the wings of a 747.__Angela Osborne

Do not start writing without a plan.__Joe O’Connor

Pinter. A character, a place, a line of dialogue. You’re off.__Don Webb

You need to know three things: what you want, what the characters want, and what the characters actually do about it, before you ever write a line.__Neal Lewis

Have a good story to tell before you create voices to tell it.__R L Pete Housman

I think it was Dan O’Brien who told me, “Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.”__Kathy Rucker

Write what you can imagine.__Sheila Rinear

Start in the middle.__Laura Pittenger

Start as close to the end of the story as possible and develop conflict.__David W. Christner

Come into the scene at the last possible moment.__Maureen Bogues

Start as late as you can in the action, so the audience is immediately engaged and trying to get up to speed.__Tim Glinski

Enter late, get out fast.__Rashman N. Kalsie

Full length, by the end of page two we should know what the play is about: ten minute play, by the end of page one.__Ron Pullins

Hook the audience in the first 10 minutes.__Roy O’Neil

Marsha Norman says: you don’t owe the audience the play they want, but you do owe them the play you promise them in the first 10 minutes.__Hal Corley

Every time you write a new play, pretend it’s the first play ever written. What does it want to be? Create the form anew each time. (Albee)__Lauren Feldman

CONTENT

“Content dictates form, less is more and God Is in the details, all in the service of clarity, without which nothing else matters.” — Sondheim__Rex McGregor

Every play should make history.__Michael Fanelli

Always tell the truth and then lie about it.__Tim J. Brennan

Anger has never made a good play. Anger can instruct love — Athol Fugard, paraphrased__Steven John Bosch

The only thing worth writing about is sex./Comedy comes from character./Begin with a premise./What does the audience want next? / Find the thing you hate in a story and be motivated by it.__Michael Penny

Tension__Scott Tobin

Where/what is the danger?__Andrew R. Heinze

Why today?__Alyson Mead

Why is this night different than every other night?__Chris White

Consequences, consequences, consequences__Gabrielle Sinclair

You can make a good play out of right vs. wrong. But you make a great play out of right vs. right.__Rand Higbee

Write what you’re afraid to write about.__Glenn Alterman

Write the play you would want to see.__Seth Christenfeld

“Write your play.”__Robert Emmet Lunney

DIALOGUE

What does the first line of your play say about your play?__Donna Hoke

Know what you want to say– and then don’t say it.__Paul Surace

If someone asks a question, don’t answer it for a while or ever.__Andrea Lepcio

Questions are fine. Direct answers to questions asked are deadly.__Adam Szymkowicz

Never give anybody anything the first time they ask. Onstage, that is.__Mary Sue Price

Not yet. (regarding when information should be revealed in the play.)__Tira Palmquist

Make them laugh, make them cry, but most of all make them wait. Charles Dickens__L.A. Giordano

Exposition is ammunition; only fire it off when you need to do so.__Jeff Stolzer

Let the characters talk; you edit.__Mark Hein

If you’re finding what your characters are saying is boring, keep writing and trust them; eventually, they will say something interesting again, and you can cut out the boring parts later.__David Hilder

Show, don’t tell.__Neil Radtke, Brad Sytsma

Show, don’t tell and sometimes an argument about ketchup isn’t about the ketchup (Francesca)__Tanise Robnett

Do not have your characters bicker ad nauseum. Every line should move the story along.__Elaine Alexander

Sometimes dialogue is not spoken. -Julie Jensen, Brief and Brilliant__Teri Foltz

Great dialogue is great action — often even transcending.__Fred Dunham

WRITING

Writing is easy — you sit at a typewriter and bleed. (Hemingway)__Jack Peterson

Write every day, don’t miss a date because every day you miss, it takes you that long to regain your momentum: Stephen King, On Writing__April Yvette Thompson

If you book the theater, the play will write itself.__Sarah Jarmon

Write. It doesn’t cost anything.__Alexandra Cremer

Rub the pencil on the paper until the play appears!__Paul Barile

Just write.__Val Valdez

Write backwards.__Audrey Cefaly

Keep writing.__Chuck O’Connor

The play is writing/revealing itself to you, not the other way around.__Jason Chimonides

Keep writing and the story will appear to you. Then you can go back and craft your play.__Marguerite Scott

Taken from Twitter and on a Sticky on my computer for a while: “Two friends burying a body in silence is much more compelling than two friends talking about that time they buried that guy.”__Stephen Spotswood

Make it active.__D Lee Miller

Start where the action starts.__Cathy Muckian Lanski

Put conflict on every page.__Bill McCann

Don’t let a page or two go by without a change in beat and/or a new action.__John Servilio

No matter how small the beat, what just changed?__David Valdes Greenwood

“Write toward danger,” a playwriting teacher quoting Romulus Linney__Helene Montagna

If there’s a gun on the wall it better go off by the end of act one.__Lila Louise Nawrocki

Keep it in the present tense.__Jeffrey Sweet

Keep it in the present tense or in the future tense!__Tom Cavanaugh

Learn how to hold the situation.__Craig Thornton

Every scene should be a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation.__Mike Nichols (via EM Lewis)

If you are writing a comedy, keep your funniest scene for the last act.__Bruno Lacroix

If there’s a paper shredder onstage, someone’s necktie has to get caught in it.__Judith Pratt

Write page one, then turn it over and write page two, then page three and so on…. don’t look back to rewrite until you have an entire first draft.__Jason Odell Williams

Stop your writing session just at the point where you know what to say next and you’re eager to tell it. Then you’ll be able to pick it up the next day and roll. That or you won’t be able to sleep.__Steve Patterson

When you get stuck, stop writing because the next thing you write will be a lie and you must write truth. (John Kani told me that)__France-Luce Benson

Similarly, I’ve heard that if you’re stuck, it’s because somewhere along the way you told a lie. You have to find the lie and tell the truth in its place, and then you’ll be able to move forward.__Lauren Feldman

“Begin at the beginning, and when you get to the end, stop.” — The Mad Hatter__Bruce Bonafede

Let a play be as long as it’s meant to be, don’t telescope it into a perceived requirement.__Richard Ballon

Nothing is good or bad until you write it. Never be afraid to write anything.__Ted Gettinger

“Don’t stop.” That was Jim Lehrer. Of the PBS News Hour. He said he’d dabbled in playwriting once but didn’t stick with it.__Bridgette Dutta Portman

Let the first draft suck.__Diane Burbano

Bill Mastrosimone told me once “Keep digging until you hit the bottom.”__David Lee White

Michael McKeever told me the first draft doesn’t have to be good, just written.__Donna Hoke

Finish it.__Nancy Bell

Get to the end. (Marsha Norman)__Steve Harper

Move on to the next play.__Mark Cornell

REWRITING

First draft is your gut, second draft is your brain, everything after is your heart.__Stuart Hoffman

The first draft is from your heart; the second draft is from your head.__Martin Casella

Don’t ever invite the “editor” in until the “writer” is finished.__Terri Foltz

Writing is rewriting.__Jenny Lane

Write crap. Then revise the hell out of it.__Patti Cassidy

Cut the fluff!__Paris Creighton III

Every line in a play needs to add to a character, add to the plot, or be really really funny.__Jeremy Gable

The utmost complexity of thought with the utmost simplicity of language.__Martin Heavisides

You’re making a blueprint from which a team of creative people will build — never explain — if it reads easily, it’s probably overwritten.__Deborah Whizbang-Magid

Tighter is better; you must never let your audience get in front of you.__Mark Scharf

Cut extraneous words; be merciless.__Barbara Trainin Blank

Every word costs 5 cents.__Jeffrey Lentz

I never met a script I couldn’t cut 10% out of.__Scott Dixon

If a word or line doesn’t serve to further the action or story, cut it.__Jan Maher

More needs to happen in less time.__Scott Sickles

Less is more__Jeff Curtis, Chima Clarke

Steven Dietz “Be a slave to your story” — you’ll willingly cut all the extraneous, self indulgent stuff that your ego inserts. __Dave Tucker

Joss Whedon says: If your story isn’t working, cut your favorite part. Then your story will work.__Liz Thaler

[Your favorite part] is almost always the thing that got you writing the story in the first place. One writer I know referred to it as the booster rocket: it got the story into orbit, then needed to be jettisoned.__Scott Sickles

Kill your darlings.__Pete Risenberg

Murder your children.__Dolores Sendler

Run toward the questions the audience has. If the audience has a question about a character, an action, don’t gloss over it; address it so the audience won’t get hung up on the small details.)__Darci Caitlin Faye

If you have a scene that isn’t working then you should ask yourself three questions, “Who wants what from whom? What happens if they get it or don’t? And why now?”__Chuck O’Connor

Read one character’s lines all the way through when you’re editing — and end on an action.__Judith Robinson

Don’t listen to anybody.__Gina Dilorio

You don’t have to take, or agree with, every note.__Sean Abley

Take what you like and leave the rest.__Chuck O’Connor

Proofread your work before pressing ‘post’.__Jim Wyatt

CHARACTERS

Character is story and story is character.__Chuck O’Connor

Listen to your characters. They will tell you what they believe to be true.__Micah Rose

Your characters are real people, not imagination, and this is their story, not yours.__Max Donohue Barr

Use everything to reveal your characters and their needs– their clothes, their speech patterns, their ways of relating to their space, even if your characters don’t believe it.__Louise Wigglesworth

Audiences care more about why someone does something than the actual behavior itself.__Greg Vovos

Every character should want something.__Jennifer O’Grady

Everybody in the scene wants something.__Michael Aman

What a character wants and what a character needs are virtually never the same thing.__Devin Gaither

Put your characters in danger.__Kate Danley

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader* may see what they are made of.”–Kurt Vonnegut__Vishesh Abeyratne

Give your characters secrets.__Staci Swedeen

“You gotta fuck ’em up”__Jason Lasky

Listen to their silence.__Sheila Rinear

Write characters that actors would kill to play.__Rosemary McLaughlin

Give the actors something fun to do.__Mark Harvey Levine

If a character should cry but doesn’t, sometimes the audience will for them. __Mark Scharf

Never write a character who is dumber than you.__John Steele Jr.

GENERAL

For scripts aimed at the high school market, always make sure the cast can be 2–1 female.__Dwayne Yancey

What you see as bad you must also see as good.__Larry Raiken

A play should be able to be produced with two chairs and a hanging light bulb, and still make sense. Edward Albee__Leighza Walker

No matter how good the reviews are… If they don’t want to come they won’t come… i.e. It’s the idea of the story that counts most.__ David Elendune

Don’t be sentimental about your work.__Kirk Sheppard

Don’t be precious.__Amanda Zeitler

Love scenes are murders; murders are love scenes.__Aleks Merilo

Love is in the details.__Josh A. Campbell

Learn how to do everything in theatre. It will keep you from expecting the director and actors to fix your weak spots.__George Sapio

Learn the rules so you know how to break them.__Michael Tooher

And then from my favorite theatre professor, for every rule in art, there is someone who has successfully broken it.__John Steele, Jr.

Get angry.__Rosa Nagle

Don’t be afraid to make them feel.__Kristen Horner Da Silva

Finish a play in 1.5–2 years. After that, she says, you’re no longer the same person you were when you started writing it (Marsha Norman).__Lauren Feldman

Don’t talk too much about what you are writing until you’re ready to share it.__Chuck O’Connor

Don’t show your work to anyone until it’s finished. Then only to someone who can progress it in some way.__Don Webb

Follow every piece of advice on this thread … except when you don’t want to.__Frank Tangredi

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Playwrights, remember to explore the Real Inspiration For Playwrights Project, a 52-post series of wonderful advice from Literary Managers and Artistic Directors on getting your plays produced. Click RIPP at the upper right.

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Originally published at blog.donnahoke.com.

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